Everything is over before it begins

A.D. Nuttall

  • How Milton Works by Stanley Fish
    Harvard, 616 pp, £23.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 674 00465 5

‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ William Blake wrote these words near the end of the 18th century and set going the idea that Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic justifying the ways of God to men, had a twofold force: an orthodox ostensible meaning and a profoundly unorthodox unconscious meaning, the latter being far stronger than the former. After Blake Milton criticism could be roughly divided into two camps: those who argued that Christian orthodoxy was central to the poem and those who detected unorthodox energies everywhere. C.S. Lewis admired the poem for its ‘mere Christianity’ and William Empson thought Milton should be honoured for the unsparing philosophical honesty of his exploration, an honesty which necessarily ended by exposing the weakness of the case for God. In 1967 Stanley Fish published Surprised by Sin, in which he allowed that Milton gives frequent expression to anti-Christian views and feelings but insisted that these passages always describe a temporary temptation. The great similes, drawn from pagan mythology, are allowed briefly to engross the imagination but are at last withdrawn, corrected, crushed. It is not just that people within the poem are tempted. The reader, too, is made to experience real temptation before he or she is brought back to truth. Heterodox critics are in this analysis readers who have no adequate prior conception of God and so are poorly defended against the allurements of sense and merely human emotions; they succumb to the temptation and fail to grasp the proffered correction. The goodness of God, meanwhile, is simply given, before the story begins, and is not open to question.

Now Stanley Fish has written another large book on Milton. Have his views changed? Certainly he has not liberalised his picture of the poet. Rather, he intensifies the account. Fish’s Milton is monist, authoritarian, obscurantist, a completely closed mind. This picture is, of course, absurd.

According to Fish, Milton consistently values the static above the dynamic. That is why ‘centrifugal’ movements of rebellion are always contained by his circumscribing art. There is no tension in him between the demands of God and the demands of a variegated nature: there cannot be, because there is no doubt about the priority of God. The world is nothing, God is all. Thus, for Fish, the moment when Adam resolves that he will eat the apple and go with his beloved Eve into darkness (‘one flesh, to lose thee were to lose myself’) is unproblematic. Generations of readers have felt that the passage is tragic; that here Adam is not just a nasty piece of work who will get what he deserves but a pitiable figure (as Hegel said, we have tragedy not when right conflicts with wrong but when right conflicts with right). But for Fish Adam is merely idolatrous. He wickedly places a human being before God – and there’s an end on it. That Milton should have given Adam at this point not the language of concupiscence but that of love, actually echoing the marriage service, does not cause Fish to hesitate. It is part of his point that even those things which seem best to us in our benighted world are as nothing when set against God. In any case, he explains, an Eve who invites Adam to sin can no longer be the Eve God made, so Adam no longer has any obligation to her. God, it seems, married them for better but not for worse.

To be sure, 17th-century Protestants would immediately agree that our obligation to God is paramount. But they lived in the world and undoubtedly approved, loved and laboured for things within that world which they conceived to be valuable. The weirdly insulated theological monism described by Fish is a caricature of Protestantism.

It has long been a commonplace that in Milton the Devil gets the best tunes – the best poetry – while the argument works (or doesn’t work?) for God. This is not Fish’s position. Reason, logic, argument: all these, for Fish, fall on the dark side of the equation; they are, together with sensuous poetry and human love, implicitly antagonistic to real devotion. His Milton, therefore, is not just closed-minded; he is (as regards human reason – and no other is available) an irrationalist. Indeed, anything utterable in human terms will take us away from rather than towards God. Fish concedes that this means that almost everything Milton actually says (why not simply everything?) points away from the truth. If the reader grows fretful at the thought that a great weight of evidence is being wantonly ignored, Fish has his answer ready: evidence itself is condemned before it is adduced, because of its sublunary, merely human character; affirming God is not something you do on the basis of the evidence, it is something you do in the teeth of evidence provided by forms of life. ‘Forms of life,’ he adds, ‘are always finally unreal and therefore without any claims on us at all.’ The wicked should not be reasoned with but just told that they are blind, deaf etc. Fish rejoices at the point in Comus (actually a later textual addition) where the Lady, after a long passage of robust reasoning on behalf of virtue, tells the threatening wood-demon that she will argue with him no longer.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in